The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump officials scramble for distance from his Taliban deal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban’s peace negotiation team, in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is, by most accounts, the least-proud moment for the seven-month-old Biden administration. The situation — and the false assurances and projections that led up to it — have played into long-standing GOP arguments that President Biden isn’t up to the job.

But as Republicans continue to prosecute that case, something interesting keeps cropping up: former Trump administration officials seeking not just to bash Biden, but to distance themselves from the Trump administration’s own actions on this front.

That goes particularly for the deal the Trump administration cut with the Taliban last year. And we’re talking about many of its top foreign-policy figures.

The most recent examples are former acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley.

Haley tweeted Wednesday, “To have our Generals say that they are depending on diplomacy with the Taliban is an unbelievable scenario. Negotiating with the Taliban is like dealing with the devil.”

Of course, it was the Trump administration itself that focused on diplomacy with and negotiated with the Taliban, quite literally cutting a deal “with the devil” despite plenty of criticism of that posture. Haley also played up potential talks with the Taliban as early as January 2018 and was still around when process began in earnest in mid-2018.

The other big story on this front Wednesday involves a rather curious claim from Miller. He told Defense One that Trump’s deal with the Taliban to withdraw completely by May 1 of this year was actually a ruse — a pressure tactic — and that Trump never intended to actually withdraw completely. There are reasons to be skeptical of this claim. Other officials are denying it and Trump pushed forward with a significant drawdown despite the advice of his advisers (including Miller’s predecessor as defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, whom Trump fired shortly after Esper wrote a memo opposing such a move).

A total of four U.S. presidents have presided over the war in Afghanistan. Here’s how messaging about the conflict evolved over two decades. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Miller’s implication seems to be: We weren’t really going to do this thing that just plunged Afghanistan into chaos and allowed the Taliban to re-seize power. But it still meant the deal was in place and had to be dealt with by Biden, who has argued that it left him with a choice between full withdrawal and an escalation if he pulled out of the deal.

Miller has argued that Biden could have renegotiated the deal if he wanted to. But as the Associated Press rightly notes, Biden had little leverage as someone who had been pushing for a U.S. withdrawal for years.

And that’s something several key Trump foreign-policy hands seem to acknowledge.

Esper, too, has tried to play his part in crafting the public narrative of Trump’s deal with the Taliban — but not in a positive way for Trump. Esper said Trump undermined the agreement by continuing to withdraw troops despite the Taliban not living up to its end of the bargain, which was signed in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020. And he explicitly tied that the deal to what happened in recent days.

“Otherwise,” Esper said to CNN of his advice to Trump, “we would see a number of things play out, which are unfolding right now in many ways.”

Trump’s former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has been arguably the most brutal about the Taliban deal. Having in the past compared it to the infamous Munich agreement of 1938 which paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s rise, McMaster even more explicitly tied the events of the past week to it.

“Our secretary of state [Mike Pompeo] signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” McMaster told Bari Weiss. “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”

McMaster’s successor as national security adviser, John Bolton, has offered similar comments, suggesting Trump would have made the same mistakes as Biden and that the two of them were “like Tweedledee and Tweedledum.”

A lower-profile official to speak out is Lisa Curtis, an expert on South and Central Asia who served on Trump’s National Security Council for four years, including when the Taliban deal was signed.

She told the AP, “The Doha agreement was a very weak agreement, and the U.S. should have gained more concessions from the Taliban.” She said the deal was too heavily weighted in the Taliban’s favor and undermined Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who ultimately fled the country this weekend.

In another interview, she cited the deal forcing Ghani to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners who likely played a role in taking over the country.

“Really, somebody has to look at that and why that happened,” Curtis said.

One official who can’t really distance himself from the Taliban deal, of course, is Pompeo. Pressed on it by Fox News’s Chris Wallace this weekend, Pompeo argued that the deal was conditions-based (despite Esper’s claim that Trump disregarded that approach) and disputed the idea that it all lent legitimacy to the Taliban. He also blamed Ghani for not taking the time to work with the Taliban himself.

Former vice president Mike Pence made a similar argument, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Tuesday that it was actually Biden’s fault because he extended the withdrawal date in the Taliban deal from May 1 to four months later. Again, the Esper commentary looms over those claims.

In many ways, this is an overdue conversation. Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban weren’t huge news outside foreign policy circles because the war wasn’t front-of-mind at the time. About the closest this got to being big news was when Trump briefly invited the Taliban to Camp David in 2019 around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, before reversing course amid a bipartisan outcry.

But now the situation has deteriorated thanks to a withdrawal that Trump, by his own estimation just a couple of months ago, forced upon Biden. “I started the process. All the troops are coming home. They couldn’t stop the process,” Trump said, adding: “They couldn’t stop the process. They wanted to, but it was very tough to stop the process.”

There is blame to go around for what has transpired in Afghanistan, given the missteps over the two-decade history of the war. But lots of people who served in high-ranking foreign policy roles in the Trump administration seem to recognize the rise of the Taliban isn’t going to make Trump’s decision look like a great idea. And it’s striking to see so many of them, including those who didn’t speak out at the time, trying to put the deal at arm’s length today.

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